A little exposition chapter from my first novel "Dark".
April 15th 1945
The Jeep stuttered and tripped across the pockmarked road, occasionally slowing to round a still smoking crater, or avoid some of the infinite miscellany of debris that spread out in front of them like a carpet of horror. The going was slow and wasn't helped by the twin streams of humanity that edged the blackened tarmac. Faces gaunt with fear and clothes thick with filth they marched between the wall of trees lining the road and the roving jeep. The Faces barely registered the noisy vehicle, their minds distracted by the spectre of a war that hunted them from their homes and murdered their children. The odd desperate soul would stagger into the road, arms outstretched wailing grief-stained pleas, the jeep merely slowed and gently rounded them, the driver and his companion's stoic faces rarely leaving the path ahead. Although the Allied forces had now marched their way into the German heartland, the sight of invading soldiers meant fighting was never far behind, there were no friendly forces yet.
Lieutenant Richard Hart inhaled the last of his cigarette then deftly flicked it out the passenger side. The butt cartwheeled into the air, departing with a burst of embers as it was drawn into the onrushing wind. He barely noticed the tsunami of sorrow that lined his peripherals; he had been immersed in this conflict so long his mind dwelt only on the job at hand. His deep set eyes were shaded by an angular brow that made his face look constantly pained, as if he was always pondering some unsolvable conundrum. His close cropped blonde hair was precisely kept, the side-parting almost as straight-edged as his frown. Clean shaven he was always dressed in a meticulous uniform, his sentiment that an officer should dress like one, even in the midst of battle. He could have been mistaken for a desk jockey, if it weren't for the scar that traced his jawline from his ear to the cleft of his chin. An injury received engaging German soldiers in the French region of Eperney, shrapnel from a .50 calibre round almost peeling his face from his skull. He had though fought on that day, and the sight of a bloodied officer with his jawbone and teeth visible through his face gave birth to his legend, leaving an aura of respect unheard of for a twenty-three year old. The wound of course healed eventually, and was now always punctuated by a cigarette hanging loosely from the corner of his mouth, dangling onto the end of the deep groove like a red-tipped exclamation mark.
He braced himself against the frame of the jeep as it front wheels plunged into a particularly deep crater in the road. His driver Cpl Davies, a burly Welshman from the valleys apologised as he gunned the throttle. His thick forearms wrestled with the large steering wheel as if he was dragging it out of the hole himself, had the jeep gotten stuck he probably would have.
"Jesus Christ, you're supposed to avoid the damn holes man."
"I'm bloody trying I am, I'm too busy trying not to mow down these bloody Kraut civvies. Where the hell are they all coming from?" Military etiquette was never used between them, the two men were strong friends and Cpl Davies had saved Richards's skin on more than one occasion, as such he detested the man addressing him as "Sir".
"I'm not sure. Intel say there's heavy fighting in Winsen up ahead, it must be displacing the civilians."
"Where isn't there heavy bloody fighting at the moment? Everybody on this God-forsaken continent is at each other's necks."
"It'll stop eventually Chris, one way or another." Hart placed a fresh cigarette between his lips, and quickly lit the tip during a weightless pause in the jeeps constant rocking.
"Aye, when everyone's bloody dead!"
"You might be right, but for the moment let's concentrate in the job in hand and keep moving."
"Well that might be difficult, look up ahead."
As they rounded a slight bend black smoke gave way to a horizon littered with the bones of a German convoy standing like a picket fence, barring the road between the tall pine trees that flanked either side of the country road. Blackened and burnt vehicles leered and lurched at bizarre angles. Bodies were scattered all over the road imitating the vehicles, black limbs locked in the awkward throes of death, charred and roasted skin only giving way to startlingly-white, bared teeth gleaming out from agonized faces like hideous grins. The corpses still crackled and smouldered, innards bursting free from some bodies like pink blossom in an effort to escape the heat.
Cpl Davies put his foot on the break and the Jeep protested, eventually shuddering to a noisy stop, a cloud of black, acrid smoke belching from the exhaust in defiance. The sudden stillness was jarring and the ghosts of the journeys vibrations echoed up Hart's spine, radiating across his shoulders. He pushed up his arms and arched his back, a satisfying crunch of muscles echoed throughout his torso. Straightening his beret with both hands he absent-mindedly drew his fingers across the winged dagger badge pinned to its front. He traced the regimental motto, "Who Dares Wins," with his thumb, a reminder to himself of his obligations to his unit and country. His hand then lowered, his fingers tracing the deep scar that lined his jawbone, a reminder of just how much those obligations could cost him.
They both climbed from their seats and surveyed the carnage that lay ahead. It was complete devastation. There were roughly seven vehicles in all, however it was hard to tell as they had been caught by an airstrike, the artillery scattering the convoy like flaming bowling pins. Each upturned vehicle almost phased into the next, the twisted metal and burning rubber turning the scene into a vast blur obscuring the way ahead. The explosion was so powerful a Panzer tank was stood on its end against the trees, the dark pines supporting it like a sleeping drunk, the main gun pointing aimlessly into the sky. The turret hatch lay across the other side of the road, the pressure of the explosion popping it like a cork. The burning demise in the belly of the tank one the most excruciating ways to die, even in a war with an almost infinite invention for pain.
"What you thinking then Dick, Lancs?" The Cpls eyes reflexively looked to the skies at the mention of the British aerial bombers.
"Not sure, it would be hard to see the convoy through the trees, and the road isn't too wide. If it was those lads have bigger balls than you."
Davies smiled at the compliment and took a few steps closer to the burning mass until he could feel waves of sticky heat surge around his thick face.
"Whatever it was it done the job good and proper, although we're not getting the jeep through it. It's a bloody good thing we arrived after, and a bloody better thing we didn't arrive during."
"Did you see any break in the trees back there?"
"Not for the last few miles, no. What do you think we should do now?"
"We really need to push through somehow, although I'm not too happy about trying to make our way through the forest. Intel said all Jerry forces have surrendered along this route, but there could be units in the forest cut-off from control."
"Permission to speak freely Sir?" Davies clicked his heels together mockingly.
"Look, I just don't fancy going back to base from a reconnaissance mission with no reconnaissance."
"Jesus man, what are you going to do when this war's over? When there's no one left to fight?"
"I'd imagine you'll still need to be driven boy." An affectionate smile spread across the big Welshman's face.
Hart gave the man a humourless side-wards glance, although his scar betraying his deadpan expression gave him a maniacal pink grin. Davies barked a laugh then slapped his friend on the back, and then moved to take a closer look at the destroyed German vehicles.
Oblivious to the carnage the tide of humanity still filtered through the trees at either side of the road. Most kept their eyes on the person in front, fearful of anyone in uniform. One old woman however broke the line, and slowly made her way toward the men deep in discussion. When she was close enough she pushed out her arm in an effort to get Davies attention from behind, Hart noticed and quickly pulled his side arm from its holster, his aim settling on the pitiful creatures head.
"Ma'am, shit.... Fraulein! Get back... Get back I say!"
Davies quickly whirled round, arms tensed ready to attack whatever had startled his lieutenant. His body visibly relaxed when he took in the gnarled form. Her fingers curled around her walking stick like the feet of crows clutching at a branch. Hunched shoulders and back bent giving her the look of someone listening intently, always waiting for their turn to speak.
"Jesus Dick, you scared the bloody crap out of me you did."
"Get back, she could be diversion." Davies just starred at the old woman, confusion blossoming across his face. "Get out of my line of sight Cpl... NOW!" The use of his rank startled him into moving back. As close as they were Hart was still his commanding officer, and the Cpl would never defy his authority.
The old woman didn't seem scared by the gun and Hart had a feeling that this wasn't the first time one had been pointed at her. He wasn't proud of pulling his weapon on a seemingly helpless, old woman, but he wouldn't take the risk. Ignoring his threats to move back she began pointing her cane at the Panzer, standing silently against the trees.
"Hle! Die Hle ist durch die Bme!"
"I, I don't speak German, I've no idea what you are saying. Please, get back off the road, it isn't safe."
Davies went to move towards the tank but Hart motioned for him to stay where he was. And still she repeated the same phrase over again becoming more, and more animated. The cane bounced slowly in her weak grip, the tip never fully pointing towards its target. It eventually relented in her grasp and she let it rest on the ground leaning on it for support. Trying to catch her breath still she shouted, spittle jumping from her lips in agitation at the men's incomprehension.
"Hle! Wenn Sie in den Wald gehen, findest du Teufel!"
Hart looked at Davies; the driver shrugged his shoulders, eyes looking toward the destination of the woman's gesticulating.
"Maybe ask the Krauts if they speak English? She might be trying to warn us of something up ahead eh?" The Cpl pointed to the twin rows of bodies shuffling at the side of the road.
"Does anyone speak English? Umm... sprechen, sie Englisch?" Hart shouted out then searched the hollow eyes shuffling past for a glimmer of recognition, they all continued with faces forward, fearful of the scarred English officer and his gun.
"Please sir, please do not hurt this woman, I can speak English. Please do not harm her, she is old, she will not harm you."
A thin man separated from the line and edge towards the two soldiers. He spoke as he approached, his thick accent carrying more weight than his fragile form, his arms held high above his head in surrender. His frail legs seemed as if they were defying the laws of physics in their impressive feat of keeping his slender torso upright, it bent against their will like a Cypress Tree in a storm. His features were aquiline, his slender royal nose rising from above a shock of beard that hid the lower half of his face. The coarse hair slightly parted as he spoke, the only proof that a mouth lay beyond its matted growth.
Hart motioned for him to approach but didn't lower his weapon. He continued towards them, oversized clothes dancing along with his movement, clothes that probably once fit the man as well as Hart's own uniform. He stopped five feet from the men, his eyes trained on the weapon now levelled at his chest.
"Before the war I worked in London as a tailor, I can describe what this woman is saying. Please, if you may allow me."
His eloquent use of English was a paradox to his dishevelled appearance and Hart's features softened. He brought the gun down slightly so as not to antagonise the man, and motioned for him to approach the old woman with the bowed barrel of his Enfield Revolver. Still keeping his eye on Hart, he approached the elderly woman and, embracing her with one arm, began to speak in the guttural language of his native tongue. Again she repeated her mantra, this time breaking down and wailing the words, eventually burying her head in the man's chest.
"Hle! Hle! Bitte sagen Sie dann diese Hle hinter den Bmen ist! Lassen sie den Fleck zu sehen, die, den die Nazi auf unser Land gelassen haben!"
The crying of the frail woman was just another sickening soundtrack to the war that had invaded Hart's world; he fully lowered his gun, looking away in deference.
As he listened to her talk the man's eyes settled past the two soldiers searching his own thoughts, as if he were pondering whether to tell the men the truth or not. After a moment his eyes fully focused on Hart and he spoke.
"Hell. Hell she says is what lies beyond those trees. Those bastards have brought us hell on earth, follow the road into the forest and you will see."
He slowly moved away from the soldiers helping the elderly woman, only stopping to spit at one of the tarred corpses at his feet. They moved into the shuffling line fading back into obscurity, faces in the sorrowful march, as similar to one another as the very shells that brought their pain.
Cpl Davies had already starting to make his way towards the destroyed Panzer and Hart quickly followed. The words of the woman had piqued his interest; the warning however gave him no fear. War was hell in its purest form, and having lived this hell left him with nothing more to fear.
"Dick, look there. Forty yards up ahead is a turn off, the convoy had only just left it when they were hit."
Hart moved past the tank, its metal pinging and groaning like some injured beast as it cooled. The Welshman was right, ahead was the entrance to a turn off, the fact the convoy had left this road made evident by the remains of a German Kelwagen at the entrance. Its chassis had been snapped and its back end was dramatically flipped up, resplendent like the tail of a peacock. The majority of the bonnet had been smashed into the dirt and its driver still sat, burned into his seat within the bucking vehicle like a cowboy on an angry steer. The entrance was marked by two blackened stone pillars and the remains of a gate could be seen littered over the path like confetti.
"What you thinking Chris?"
"It's a sizeable convoy, about seven vehicles with an escort tank and a couple of armoured cars. The path must be well cleared for such a large force. The tank would have been there for protection rather than the geography. There's definitely something up that bloody road my boy."
"Have we any way of moving these vehicles to get the jeep past?"
"No chance, we'd need an Abrahams just to clear the way, and that car blocking the entrance will need to be taken apart."
"Well old friend, looks like we're going up on foot." He put another cigarette into his mouth, expertly lighting the tip with a flick of his zippo. It was adorned with the same crest that sat proudly on his beret.
A wide smile grew across the large Welshman's face, and he clapped his hands together in contentment.
"About bloody time."
The two men walked back to the jeep to get their weapons. Hart picked up his Lee-Enfield bolt-action rifle and some spare magazines. The gun was well maintained but mirrored its owner in that it was blemished with the indelible stains of battle. A large groove lined the wooden fore stock, the calling card of another close call. Cpl Davies loaded and checked his Lanchester submachine gun. The heavy, snub-nosed piece suited the burly Welshman, and he shouldered the heavy weapon as if it was made of balsa wood.
Pushing the jeep into some cover at the side of the forest, they approached the road through the trees. Crouched and silent they made slow progress in the heavy foliage that lined the path. Hart would pause every few moments, clenched fist hanging in the air above his head. His keen soldier's instinct almost feeling the air around them for danger, like a deer certain that it was in the crosshairs of a hunter. The base of the route they shadowed was clear of any vegetation, and the still-soft tyre ruts that kept pace with them showed that Davies was right; the trail was in constant use.
Although the sun was high above them the wood was eerily quiet. There was no breeze and the cold air hung silently throughout the trees, freeze-framing the foliage surrounding them. It seemed as if the forest was holding its breath in trepidation, fearing the violence that could follow. Every brush against leaves or broken twig sounded like a thunderclap, the men pausing, crouched in the hope that only silence would answer.
After thirty minutes or so Hart froze on the spot and Davies almost went straight into the Lieutenants back. Hart silently raised two fingers and gestured towards the other side of the road. Through the wet, gilt-edged leaves Davies could see two men standing guard as the path fanned out behind them into the brightness of a large clearing. Staying out of sight and peering beyond, he could also make out countless ranks of single-story huts, separated from the guards by a high barbed-wire mounted fence.
Hart watched the two men. They were both Waffen-SS and stood hugging their Gewehr 43 rifles to their chests. Their body language was relaxed and they were both leaning against their guard-post laughing and smoking. Hart knew they would be well trained and had no idea if they had received the order to surrender. He didn't even know what this place was. If they had something to hide here it wouldn't matter if the order had been received or not, particularly when faced with just two lightly armed soldiers.
Hart could feel the skin tighten around his muscles as the hairs on the back of his neck prickled with the excitement of fear. There was no way to know how many more German's there were, however they couldn't approach the men from any other direction. He turned to Davies, his usual smirk now carved into a mask of complete concentration. The Welshman just gave a slight nod, affirmation that the man would follow Hart into whatever situation waited. Hart returned the nod, more a subtle farewell than thanks. His heart pounded in his chest like battle drums, every beat an explosion of courage within him. Adrenalin surged through his limbs and he fought to maintain mastery of his senses, his fists clenching his over his weapon stronger than would ever be useful. He took five deep breaths through his nose in an effort to centre his mind. The sinews in his muscles relaxed along with his grip, as his trained mind regained control over the primitive instinct of combat that lies dormant within every man.
He closed his eyes for a split second. He remembered his wife; Rebecca, crying into his mother's shoulder as he left. Her beautiful brunette hair concealing a face wrought with heartache. He then imagined his mother trying to stray in control, her normally stern face crumbling like a damn of pride beneath a river of concern. And his father, one of the strongest men he knew. A man so worried in losing his only son that he couldn't wave him goodbye, and a man that had died three months ago, word reaching Hart only yesterday.
Hart opened his eyes, raised his weapon, and ran.